PART I: FAST FASHION & ETHICS
With fashion getting faster and retail stores perpetually "on sale", surely we are reaching a tipping point. Yet people are consuming more clothes than ever before. Many of them coming from the fast fashion pile. So, is fast fashion ethical? And why is this question pertinent to each and every one of us?
Image by Kurt Bingham
Fast Fashion: Part I
What do I think about fast fashion? I get asked this question ALL the time. So here is my (very long) attempt at answering it.
One thing I cannot make room in my heart for, is fast fashion.
It makes me mad, sad, not glad, and honestly I feel had- for all the years I used to blindly buy into its cheap charm. There's an amazing book that goes into this very topic, how we got to the point of having nothing to wear while our closets are fuller than ever. Check out 'Wardrobe Crisis' by Clare Press (who seems like a bloody legend by the way). It's witty, packed full of research and it's ultra digestible.
Fast fashion is not only based on a model of producing obscene amounts of clothing, but also selling clothes dirt cheap. Although there have been developments in automation with cutting and pattern-making, sewing garments is a domain that still remains in the hands of humans. No company is commercially assembling their garments via a robot. Surprised? Lots of people are. So regardless of whether you buy from H&M or Alpha60, those clothes, with the aid of a sewing machine have been guided, stitched and assembled by a person. There are also other costs associated with production like raw materials and transportation- which are expensive. So why is fast fashion so cheap and why have we, the consumers, developed an appetite for it?
Fast fashion relies on cheap labour. Cheap labour performed by human beings. Lest we forget that real humans have real dreams, real hopes, families, friends and the day-to-day. Obvious much? Still, seems like most of us don't stop to think about it when we reach for the $10 tees. Heavy thinking for an impulse shop, but imperative to my ethical musings.
I am sure many people today have heard about the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse in 2013 that killed 1,134 people (Rana Plaza Arrangement Committee) and injured hundreds more due to blocked escape exits and poorly erected structures. That's one incredibly tragic event among many others where those real people I talked about earlier, simply trying to make a living, lost their lives due to negligence and at the heart of it, greed. This can be so incredibly overwhelming for the average you or I to grasp. If I can recommend a great first step, it would be watching 'The True Cost' film by Andrew Morgan (Netflix has it, so no excuses).
Back to my main gripe with fast fashion: fast fashion relies on dirt cheap labour. I have heard a not-so-favourable rebuttal to this gripe- that offshoring cheap labour is good for these developing countries and their economies. Also, that this is the first step in relieving those countries from poverty. And I'm sorry, but no.
Here's why that argument doesn't fly with me. The big companies (AKA fast fashion brands) always have the upper hand. They aren't a charity, their business model is based on buying a lot, and paying the least. Already there poses an ethical conflict between profits and human rights. Their demand for volume makes them powerful, and developing countries vie for the business. This power means that the corporation can demand the prices they want and the speed they require to fuel a manic re-stock schedule (hence the term 'fast fashion'). In my view, fast fashion in all its complexities, is often fuelling a cycle of poverty that many workers cannot escape. How? Workers can be separated from their families in order to work longer hours and stay in dormitories with fellow workers. There is minimal to no chance of climbing the corporate ladder, up-skilling or continuing education. Garment workers (a majority which are women) are more often that you might think, denied breaks, underpaid on overtime, are intimidated out of joining a union and work for well under a living wage. It's a life most of us could not imagine. Yet somehow it's explained away with the economy argument. Never mind human rights, right?
Now, I am not against overseas manufacturing. But because it is such a sketchy industry, unless a brand is working directly with an international social cause or an organisation like Fair Trade, then I just don't trust it. Even if a company has flashy Supplier Codes of Conduct, I'm still not buying it. To me, that is just an insurance policy. You see, brands don't employ their own garment workers, it's all out-sourced. That means they are covered, legally, when things go horribly wrong. Child labour exposed? The "disappointed" company blames the factory, regardless of the pressures placed there in the first place. That's a big reason why local labour is so important to me personally, I can visit my suppliers any day I choose and they are required by law to adhere to Fair Work Australia guidelines and receive award pay rates. I feel most comfortable with that arrangement and, as A.BCH grows, we will eventually directly employ our sewers.
I understand ethics are very personal, each individual has their own ideas about what is most important to them ie. fair labour, environment, cruelty-free and the list goes on. To me, fast fashion is unethical because it involves a giant corporation making hefty profits, finding the lowest paid humans in the world, and outsourcing work to them at rates that fall well below living wages. It's really that simple in my mind. If these companies were making immediate changes that ensured workers were paid living wages and had fair work conditions, that would be a different story. But then I doubt that would keep many shareholders happy.
We, the buyers, the consumers, the individuals, on the other hand, keep buying more and more stuff. But are we any more fulfilled? It makes me wonder, who is really getting ripped off here? We are buying things we don't really like in the long run. This is demonstrated by the increasing number of clothes we buy each year and the amount that continues to pile up in op-shops and landfill. Did you know, in Australia, the average person throws away 23kg of the 27kg of clothes they buy each year? (Textile World, 2015) Yikes. We're only beaten by North America for clothing consumption, by the way. Hi, America- we're right behind you.
Fast fashion brands might subliminally convince us that they are democratising fashion and putting the power to be fashionable in anyone's hands. Yet here many of us are, mindlessly spending many accumulative dollars on cheap fashion that doesn't give any lasting satisfaction. Plus, we keep going back for more because the quality and styles don't last like they should.
Back to the real people. I think that because the "dirty work" of fashion is so far away from the average westerner's line of sight, we can so easily forget the people behind the garments. Heck, this might be the first time you've ever really thought about it. But here's the thing, this is relevant to us all because we all wear clothing. Of course many of you do think about it, and prove it in what you buy (or don't buy). Respect.
So what can be done? Here's a good start. Figure out what your ethical standards are. What is non-negotiable for you? Do you care most for animal welfare? Environmental protection? Empowering women? Transparency? Then you can vet your purchases much more effectively. If you are wondering how A.BCH vets based on our values, then check out our circular approach, we talk about it in our FAQs and will do a more detailed blog post about it in the future.
This is the first of a three part post, next we will discuss the affects of discounting, and then the mother topic; the environmental costs of fast fashion.